The US and Russian presidents, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, will meet in Geneva on 16 June, at Biden’s invitation. But Russia has given no sign that it is ready to de-escalate tensions or to engage constructively on critical issues.
Should Biden have taken the initiative so soon after coming to office? What might we expect from their meeting? Will anything change afterwards? And why was Geneva chosen, rather than Helsinki or Prague as initially proposed?
To start at the end, Helsinki hosted the infamous July 2018 summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Nobody except the Russians knows what Trump told and promised Putin there. Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev met in Prague in April 2010 and signed the only achievement of Obama’s ‘reset’, the New Start treaty on the reduction of nuclear arms. Both locations were obvious non-starters.
Geneva, notably, hosted the historic first summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, in November 1985. But the Biden-Putin meeting will clearly not result in a similar process of détente and political change in Russia. It will instead most likely be tense, with each party deeply distrusting and disliking the other.
The Kremlin has already stated on several occasions that it does not expect any meaningful results, let alone a breakthrough in US-Russia relations. Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov has argued nevertheless that the value of the Geneva summit is the simple fact of a bilateral meeting between presidents Biden and Putin. This contradicts Russia’s stance that there is no need for dialogue just for the sake of dialogue, but it reflects Putin’s satisfaction in being taken seriously and invited to meet the world’s top leader.
Biden’s initiative certainly does not stem from a vision such as Obama’s failed ‘reset’ of the early 2010s. But, considering the timing of the invitation, it may have been influenced by Putin’s sabre-rattling around Ukraine in early May. If the Kremlin shares this interpretation, it may feel justified in repeating such warlike scenarios in the future.
Distrust and Dislike
President George W. Bush first met Putin in Slovenia, in June 2001, and declared that the Russian president was “very straightforward and trustworthy” and that he had got “a sense of [Putin’s] soul”. Biden, then a Democratic Senator from Delaware, commented that he himself did not trust Putin, and hoped that Bush was speaking stylistically, rather than substantively.
Ten years later, in March 2011, Vice President Biden met Prime Minister Putin in Moscow. Biden demonstrated his dislike for Moscow’s authoritarian rule by also meeting with Russia’s opposition leaders and organisations, later to be harassed, imprisoned, and poisoned by Putin. Biden confessed that on this occasion he told Putin to his face that he does not have a soul.
Ten years later still, the two leaders are to meet again and have another opportunity to exchange personal views. The Geneva summit is apparently part of the White House’s attempt to pacify Putin after Biden agreed with the statement that Russia’s president is a “killer”. Putin, who is vengeful by nature, will most likely not miss an opportunity to humiliate Biden and the US, perhaps by stressing his better physical shape and strength, and implying that the same also applies to their two countries.
The Western world has accused the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, of unspeakable brutality against domestic protesters and of the unprecedented hijack of an internal EU flight in May. While the West imposed additional sanctions on Belarus, Russia fully approved of and defended Lukashenko’s behaviour. In late May, Putin hosted the Belarusian dictator in Sochi and took him on a jolly boat trip during which they laughed, embraced, and watched dolphins.
On 5 June, at the St Petersburg Economic Forum, Putin declared that Russian-US relations are in an “extremely bad state”. He claimed that “Russia has no problems with the US, but the US has problems with Russia”, because the US “wants to impede Russia’s development and influence its domestic politics through sanctions”.
Putin also stated that the Capitol was stormed on 6 January by “people with political claims”, whom he compared to anti-Lukashenko protesters in Belarus. Putin concluded, “from his own experience”, that the US “marches firmly in the direction of Soviet Union’s fate”—at a certain point, the world’s mightiest country will not be able to cope with its growing difficulties.
Also, on 7 June Putin signed a law that pulled Russia out of the Open Skies Treaty, following the US’ own decision to do the same in May 2020. This is Putin’s signal to Biden that Russia is ready to escalate further if America and the West continue to criticize and punish Russia and its ally Belarus.
Furthermore, Putin is preparing to outlast Biden. In addition to amending Russia’s constitution in 2020 to pave the way for Putin’s lifetime dictatorship, the State Duma recently adopted legislation that forbids “extremists” from standing in national elections.
With so much antagonism in the air, the Geneva summit could at best be just another agree-to-disagree-meeting. Or it could fuel a sharp increase in Russia’s hostility and aggressiveness towards the West and Russia’s neighbours, particularly Ukraine.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).